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Introduction

Welcome to this blog of our trip to the Picardie region of France. This was for five weeks in April-May 2016.

The purpose of the trip was to add local experience to the war novel for teens that Libby is writing. It is set in in the Somme in 1918.

The purpose of the blog is to provide a personal framework of pictures and observations.

The nature of blog engines is that they present entries (called ‘posts’) in order of being created; such that what is added most recently comes at the top, and the first written entry (our arrival) comes at the end.

The different posts are based around themes and places, so this is not a day-to-day account. The content of the different thematic posts will change with time, as information is added, removed and edited.

It is also an learning exercise in using WordPress – anyone with skills, help! For example the menu of posts on the right is meant to show 17, but only 5 are displayed.

For a more day-to-day account of this trip, see Libby’s site here

regards

Euan

 

Te Papa

_DSC4329smThe Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (usually called Te Papa) is situated on the waterfront on Wellington Harbour. I visited the exhibition “Gallipoli: the Scale of Our War”.

 

Such exhibitions blend ideas, information and emotions; conveying something of the personal experience of the individuals to an observer who is 100 years distant to the whole experience, not only of war, but of place and the times themselves. This game with my emotions cut quickly to the core. To blend the personal with the past is a powerful tool in myth creation.

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On entering the first of a series of dimly-lit circular chambers the visitor is confronted with an illuminated  2.4 times life-sized model of the wounded New Zealand soldier, Spencer Westmacott, face wrought with tension, firing a revolver over your head. You can circle the figure, and examine in forensic detail the dirt, soil, torn cloths, the bleeding wounds on the knee and hand and sink yourself into this very moment in time. The figures themselves are of exquisite detail; 24,000 hours in their creation; every hair follicle showing. The surrounding walls have the story drawn from his diary, and record time, place, objects, action and fate. Part of this is displayed in small exhibition cases containing confirming evidence, another part of the wall, displays a moving finger of hand-writing of the diary entry, which is read aloud over the soundscape of the battle.

The exhibition leads you through six such tableaus, interspersed with hundreds of photos, personal momentos and personal tools of the waring trades (rifles, bayonets, trenching tools, bandages etc). Small sections deal with global geopolitics, domestic politics, Maori involvement in this European war, and including that the Turks were battle hardened and were defending their own territory from foreign invaders.

The second tableau is also confronting; an army  doctor, Percival Fenwick, crouched over a fallen blood-stained body; the unknown soldier, face covered with a rough blanket. The doctor’s face is a masterpiece of expression: you can read resignation, anguish, reflection and exhaustion. His words, moving across the wall, convey his personal horror of experiencing the slaughter. We are taken far beyond the personal, out of our comfort zone, to face the costs, futility and scope of such enterprises.

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_DSC4283sThere is a small accompanying interactive where you can choose your weapon: shrapnel, bullet, grenade or flying metal and watch in slow-motion as it does its particular damage to a life sized x-ray scan of a human body, followed by medical case reports of real people with such injuries.

Along the way we pick up the narrative threads of this unfolding disaster. The first day of the landings made progress up narrow gullies to the surrounding ridge until fierce resistance was met and the advance stopped. The commanders considered withdrawal. Instead, over the next eight months, no further progress was made and a stalemate was in place. Both sides dug in and advances by either side were reciprocated and measured in blood-soaked metres. At times, front-line trenches were only 6-10 feet apart. Deaths rates in battles were expressed in terms of numbers of deaths per yard gained or per acre of ground. It was difficult to cross no-man’s land without stepping on a corpse.

Gradually conditions worsened, casualties in both sides mounted, life was lived in dugout hovels, the wounded, flies, lack of sanitation, lice, poor water and food, the stench of rotting corpses and shit, broken supply lines, many brave actions by both sides, suicidal charges, gallant defences to the last man, attrition and death by shell, shot and disease.

3-dimensional scale models of the landscape glow with moving coloured amoeba-like blobs (we are blue, they are red) portraying the ebb and flow of both sides over time. Like arterial and venous blood flowing through capillaries, bleeding to death, down to sea.

_DSC4277smThere was a major NZ attempt to break the stalemate in August, at a ridge called Chunuk Bair (Australia had hers at Lone Pine). This had elements of surprise and initial success and at the great cost of lives, moments of fatal hesitation, more gallant suicidal charges, and ultimately more death and destruction.

While the New Zealand soldiers captured their objective (largely at night by bayonet), the supporting British forces never arrived and the position had to be abandoned. Of the 700 New Zealand soldiers involved, only 76 were not killed or wounded on that day. The NZ commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone himself was killed by a shell fired in support by a British warship and, perhaps worse, he was subsequently held responsible for the failure of the battle by British command, a claim resolutely disputed by contemporary historians.

Among the most moving experience is the re-created sandbag shelter where just hours before the Kiwi assault on Chunuk Bair, Malone penned the last letter to his wife, Ida. Only three at a time can fit inside to see and hear the reading of the following:

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In less than two hours we move off to a valley, where we will be up all night and tomorrow in readiness for a big attack, which will start from tomorrow night. Everything promises well and victory should rest with us. God grant it so and that our casualties will not be too heavy. I expect to go through my dear wife. If anything untoward happens to me there are our dear children to be brought up. You know how I love and have loved you, and we have had many years of great happiness together. If at any time in the past I seemed absorbed in ‘affairs’, it was that I might make proper provision for you and the children. That was due from me. It is true that perhaps I overdid it somewhat. I believe now that I did, but did not see it at the time. I regret very much now that it was so and that I lost more happiness than I need have done. You must forgive me; forgive me also for anything unkindly or hard that I may have said or done in the past.I am prepared for death and hope that God will have forgiven me all my sins. My desire for life – so that I may see and be with you again could not be greater, but I have only done what every man was bound to do in our country’s needs. It has been a great consolation to me that you approved my action; the sacrifice was really yours. May you be consoled and rewarded by our dear Lord’

The close personal contact with grief is exemplified by the figure of the nurse,  Lottie Le Gallais, who served on a hospital ship, weeping on receipt of her letters to her brother, returned as he had been killed.

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The curious moralities of war and death are exemplified by the figure of Jack Dunn, a courageous soldier who was court-martialled for falling asleep on guard duty; according to the Army manual this was a capital offence. He was convicted and sentenced and given his record, the sentence was overturned. He also later died at Chunuk Bair.

_DSC4289sThe ferocity is exemplified by two men manning a machine gun in the face of an assault while a third lies dead at their side. There were many instances where positions were held only because of the outstanding bravery of individuals.

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After Chunuk Bair there was another major attack past all limits of logical comprehension made under distant orders, men were pushed beyond the limit if their exhaustion; again with large losses, illustrating the crazy futility.

Finally, probably the most notable victory was the silent and strategic withdrawal of 46,000 men over 5 days; they slipped away into the night while giving the impression the landscape remained occupied.

But emotions are not over yet; there is one final twist of the bayonet. On leaving visitors are invited to write a note on a red paper poppy to a fallen person.

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All very emotional stuff; there is little military glory or honour, no military victory, only some understanding that our forefathers had an ability to sustain and fight on and frequently die in these circumstances.

I am not sure of the origin of ANZAC day; the exhibition simply claims “On April 25th 1916, our first Anzac Day, we played footy in a village and drank to dead mates”. More official war histories note that by 1916 New Zealand had by gazetted the 25th April as an official day of remembrance of the war dead back home (and something similar in Australia), with soldiers in France and the UK wanting to celebrate this together, as church-led services precluded the mixing of catholics and protestants.

I have never been to a museum exhibition which focusses so personally on a war and told through the experience of six people. In uses fragments of time, largely devoid of global  geopolitics, the racism, colonialism, and imperialism of its time, or the subsequent aftermath. In some ways that is a pity; while we honour the individual we fail to appreciate the flaws in the wider frame that both made this possible, nor do we question the consequences.

If it is at all true, and there is no evidence to doubt it, then there was something special, or at least different, about standards of behaviour which would subsequently be described as ‘magnificent’ where men were repeatedly prepared to act as some primal unit and repeated risk their own lives and repeatedly paid for this with death and disfigurement. Men fighting fellow men, doing whatever it took to kill and survive, and not infrequently honouring these characteristics in the enemy if they did the same, more so for the Turks than for the Germans. This was a manly game, that drew out of individuals the long held classic virtues, the characteristics of a warrior, death before dishonour. One might argue that due to their socialisation and pressures they had little choice, there was no option to ‘beam me up Scotty’. However, it could also be argued that in both sides there was the spirit of pursuing a collective social goal and such a spirit, is rare if not absent today, in how we live and reward and prosper. It is in stark contrast to the fascination with the self, the pursuit of individual pleasures and in generating wealth and possessions insanely past our own requirement and blind to the capacity of a world to sustain these for future generations. Such a terrible waste of life, which continued and scarred all the nations involved. How many men were led to an an unknown and ‘honorable death’ when they could have lived and contributed so much more to social change, or whatever virtue you wish to nominate.

Within the context of what happened in this place, we can question what it is that makes men follow other men and what are these core qualities of leadership that are displayed, however well or badly such sacrifice is exploited.

ANZAC will always be a legend; we will never own, know or experience the events that involved tens of thousands of people 100 years ago.  The French, with their long military history, lost more people in the same invasion of the Dardanelles than we did and to them it is a best-forgotten military debacle; for us remains a mystical event contributing to the abstraction of nationhood.

My grandfather (my mother’s side), George James Sutherland of the Otago Regiment died of wounds a few weeks after his evacuation from Gallipoli in August 1915. He left behind a young wife and two young children; his death greatly affected the passage of all their lives. His letters to his wife were lost in a house fire a few years after this; those to his mother survived and are transcribed by me here.  His final letter, 15th August contains the lines “We are expecting a big smash-up in a day or so and I hope my luck holds good though a big lot of us are bound to go under. However we are all keen for it and from what we learn Otago is to take the lead and have the place of honour.”

I also visited the official war Museum up the hill in Wellington. It is old-school, with a catalogue of uniforms, big guns, maps, street scenes, real tanks, many pictures, lists of war dead and life-sized tableaux. Somehow, emotionally, you walk out through the same door as you entered through.

The June-July 2016 edition of the Australian Book Review contains a review by Andrea Goldsmith of “In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies’ by David Rieff. Goldsmith notes “individual memory degrades very quickly, while official memorising is a tool in service of ideological and cultural currents … official remembrance is big business these days”. Rieff accuses even the Holocaust Museum in Washington of being “book-ended in kitch”. [Goldsmith] rationalised the motivation that by “promoting personal involvement in the (long past) events portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding”.[Goldsmith] regrets the loss of imagination itself as the vehicle for understanding the past, although later comments that memory itself is a form of imagination. Rieff apparently advocates forgetting as a way for individuals to move on from past atrocities, using personal strength and resilience. He claims it was the children and grandchildren (and their own brand of narcissistic remembrance) who dragged the survivors back to Auschwitz. I have bought the book but so far have not read.

In terms of this war, I suspect people who where there did not talk about it (bit like the 60s really) for many reasons; or at least only in code with those who shared it. Its magnitude is overwhelming. Loss, comradeship, love and sacrifice are a heady personal mix and easily distorted by the same social forces that led to these conflicts, wrote history and benefitted at a national scale. It is prudent to privately remember the forces that tore apart families of people we know and our own families and these effects can never be denied or forgotten.

Epilogue

Overview

We were a bit blown away by France which, (as they say), exceeded our expectations. We did not expect to encounter a beautiful countryside, with endless rolling green and yellow fields or the many small and large areas of forests which were something out of childhood fairy tales. In the two regions we were, there was a matrix of small villages each a couple of kms apart. The impression was these had hardly changed in size in the 50-100 years and would have dated to farming hamlets around landowners many hundreds of years earlier. Only those with populations of perhaps a thousand would have had any shops. The architectural style was reminiscent of old books and films.

We were visitors in rural communities and our experience was an education in warmth, politeness and interest in what Libby was doing. Life was lived with a certain gusto and pleasure. The past and history was very important, as was politics and a French identity.

Français

My experience in learning French language was probably similar to many other English speakers. Attempts to learn some French were slightly useful, more as they gave confidence, but were functionally pretty inadequate. At times I resorted to sign language, the skills of others and smart-phone language apps. The apps are translate.google.com and translate.yandex.com. You can type or speak into phone, it understands (like Siri) and provides a translation in large characters on screen which you can show people. The google app will also do dual language translations and has a function where you point the camera and the translation appears on-screen in real time. OK not perfect but impressive. The yandex works off-line.

The common experience of language learning is that at around 1 year of age there is a natural capacity to acquire the ability to speak and to hear the sounds which differentiates French from other languages; this declines up to 7 years of age. After that, specific training is required and it becomes really quite difficult if you are >35 years. My experience was you think you are saying something correctly only to get a blank quizzical stare; conversely when something is said to you, only multiple seconds later do you recognise parts of perhaps what was said.

Thus my 10 francs of advice for ‘others/myself next time’ is to intensively learn the phonics of the language via a native speaker plus on-line tools, see here, work on simple vocabulary and grammar via Duolingo or other tools, learn set phrases with a native speaker (although fluency failed me more often than i expected), add more discipline to the process by attending formal classes. Importantly, it’s not all words; learn as much as possible beforehand about the food, culture and other shared values so you have fun and shareable objectives.

Food

Food and wine are major and healthy obsessions and eating a long and multi-course lunch with wine is a common pleasure. A decent local meal is around 20-25 euros, around AUD$30. Our main regret is that we did not easily learn from the food as much as we wanted to, due to lack of language and knowledge / confidence; plus being 10 km from a town also limited our opportunities. We did OK with the abundant and relatively inexpensive (by Australian standards) wine and cheese, less so with the dozens of unfamiliar products in the charcuteries (butcher cum delicatessens). The variety is much greater and we simply did not know what the products were or how to cook them and nor could we intelligently ask.  The boulangeries (bread and cakes) did not turn us on as much as it obviously does the locals; spectacular nevertheless. Three of the four open markets we encountered were more about cheap clothes, hardware etc rather than foods, and we used supermarkets a fair bit. We ate indulgently and drunk without care and did not put on weight; a mystery.

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Typical pre-dinner indulgence, several cheeses, paté and a glass of red

On my first day back in Australia I purchased a French cookbook to learn more.

Miscellaneous technology and other hacks

Phones: Our travel insurance (from ‘Covermore’, branch of NRMA) provided international SIM cards for phones (available without insurance for $18). We needed to use their technical helpline a few times and that was efficient. The alternatives would be an Australian post travel SIM or a French provider like Orange. We each used ~AUD$10/week for data. There were times and places where phones dropped out, sometimes resolved by turning off and on.

Navigation: despite buying paper maps which were handy to get spatial perspectives, we extensively used i-phones for navigation. These were pretty essential. There is a fine mesh of roads, limited signage, no ability to anticipate turns and maps are limited. This was especially the case for longer trips, like Albert to Flanders where we were navigated around interim cities, traffic jams, and the apps were very forgiving; when you make a wrong turn they recalculate a new path. I-phones were useful to locate petrol stations; these are not common or obvious.

We bought new small inexpensive laptops for the trip, ~$350 each , I bought an ASUS TP200s, Lib an HP, both had 10 hr battery life, solid state, were very light. We needed to add 32GB cards for additional memory. Both worked seamlessly. Where we stayed had internet and so we extensively used Skype, read newspapers, did email, wrote blogs, edited pictures etc.

A hire car, AVIS, prebooked 2 months ahead, was essential. My hope, to cycle a bit, would have been madness – the roads are narrow, absolutely no curb and traffic fast. Cars are often diesel, and (almost) always manual – which means you have to coordinate driving on the right, with right-hand gear shift and indicators were confused with wipers. The French have a very casual view about street parking and happily half block roads. Some of the road rules and signs remained a mystery to me; which is definitely not advisable.

 

Alsace

For a chronological sequence see Lib’s blog , my blog is more impressions,themes etc.

We moved from the green rolling plains of Picardie which hosted the carnage of the Western Front in WW1, to the forests, fields and mountains of Alsace which hosted the Maginot line in the 1930s and tank battles in 1945.

This journey of around 600 kms is achieved in a few hours, thanks to a train system that sweeps you silently across the countryside at 250 km/hr. This is a great speed for travelling – slow enough to see the countryside yet fast enough to make giant strides. Why didn’t Australia spend the $40B buying French high speed trains that many can enjoy, rather than $40B on French submarines that we will never see.

The history of Alsace is obviously important to its character. Anyone interested in more than a five-minute explanation is referred to wiki here 

For those with less than 5 minutes here is my potted history. From Roman times, Alsace region appears to have sort of been Germanic in a way  with Gallic, Latin, high / low Germanic / Flemish / Alsatian languages up until around 1700s, when its residents voted to became part of France. Bear in mind that all these regions were the playthings and objects of trade, princelings, fiefdoms, kings, holy roman empires, conquests, bits of Spain and that nations were less identified entities (which continues in WW1). The region reverted to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and then back to France after WW1, it was then integrated into Germany during WW2, and then reclaimed by France in 1945.

If the analogy is useful, the overall region in shaped like a long banana-split, with the river Rhine dividing the two halves; the German part of the banana is bounded by the Black Forest Mountains on the east and the French opposite boundary by the Vosges Mountains on the west. Food analogies always seem appropriate in France.

We came here to see George and Lil; the history of this relationship almost fits the human timescales of the province. George was almost the first person I befriended in Australia back in the early 1970s. In the couple of faded airport pictures recording anything of those times, I am the young man with wavy shoulder length black hair. George lived through the wall in the adjoining bed-sit in Glebe (we both had different partners than now – it was a long time ago). He was making films and played Kurdish music at night; I worked on the railways in the day and at night knocked on his door to ask him to turn it down so we could sleep. That friendship persisted off and on through my first 5 year period in Australia and then resumed years later in London in the late 70’s. Lib and I met through George, which is another story, and George, Lib and I all lived in the same communal houses in London around 1978-80. We subsequently met briefly again ten years later on a visit to London, where Lil was pregnant with their first child. Alex, who we had never met is now 23 and a sports lawyer in Switzerland, so this gives a human dimension to time-frames. None of us have changed much as inner people; the outer packaging has morphed like one of those ‘5 ages of man (or women)’ cartoons.

The pictures will be divided into four groups, the definitely French (but to me somewhat German/Swiss looking) local towns around Hatten, the Maginot Line, and Strasbourg itself and finally food.

Local towns including Hatten

We were based in George’s ancestral home town of Hatten. His relationship to the region dates back to 1690, see here.

My impression of the local towns, is that development is regulated by both recent and ancient historical precedents. If your town was the site of a WW2 tank battle then most of the shattered town was rebuilt in the late 40s and early 50’s in a hybrid style, whereas if heavy warfare skipped your town, houses may date back several hundred years, with a bit of luck sensitively retrofitted to modern times. The characteristic construction of these older houses is of substantial (~150×150 mm) timber beams forming a lattice, with an infill of plastered brickwork or wattle and daub. These are respectively painted black and white. WW2 not WW1 matters deeply around here. George’s house is in the re-built category.

The overall style has a two or three storey house at the front, another storage / work area behind this and then a very large barn, attached at the rear, forming an “L” shape. The barns no longer hold the family cows/pigs, rather seem stacked with literally cubic meters of logs which are burnt in basement heating systems.

The countryside around these small towns is generally prosperous, with fields under cultivation, some dairy activity, and abundant forests which are typically on public land.

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Maginot line

The Maginot line is a complex series of ‘impregnable’ forts, bunkers, communications systems, underground troop stations etc that were constructed as a defensive measure along much of the German – France border with the impending threat of German rearmament in the late 1920s. For those wanting to actually understand the intention, construction, components and success of the Maginot line, then wiki provides a detailed resource, here 

On the advent of war in 1939, the Line was not sufficiently useful to have the desired effects of stopping a German invasion. The pair of Achilles heels were that one portion of the line through difficult terrain the Ardennes forest and was not well fortified, plus Germany ignored the neutrality of the low countries and invaded through Belgium. In subsequent fighting some of the forts were taken while others held out, but honorably ‘surrendered’ after Paris fell; further resistance was futile. Whether this semi-continuous defensive line was a brilliant idea, a reasonable idea for the time or an extremely short-sighted white elephant is the topic of debate in military circles.

We went to one of these, at Schoenenbourg where Lil had been a guide. This involved going down about 30M underground and walking through the 3 km of tunnels which joined the spartan sleeping quarters for 500 with a series of well protected ‘pop-up’ gun emplacements.

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This was the back door entrance, the business end is on the other side of the hill facing the enemy.

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Almost art deco inside, the chambers on the wall either side of the above  were to be filled with explosives to blow up and block the tunnel should it be entered.

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Parts of around 2 km of tunnel

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Three layers of wire bunks, of five beds each, very little personal space down here.

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Men in uniform; coats not surprising, its damp and around 10-12C most of the year

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part of the kitchen, out of shot is an enormous coffee making machine

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Part of the complex air conditioning/filtering system in case of gas attack

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The turrets and therefore the guns were surprisingly small.

Strasbourg

The inner parts of the capital Strasbourg have elements of its street layout and buildings dating back literally hundreds of years. This charm has been greatly increased by a recent tram-based public transport system, lots of freedom for cycles and pedestrians together with major restrictions on cars and trucks. This has the effect of slowing the pace down and encouraging leisurely walking. On moving from the center to the periphery, the usual car-based traffic increases.

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Part of a very complicated clockwork system which appeared to be able to show the movement of planets and phases of the moon, celestial figures used to appear like cuckoos every 15 minutes

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You get to love these roofs.

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Food

How we did not manage to put on weight, I will never know, as we ate and drunk like Frenchmen on holiday. I would be happy to further explore this paradox.

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A snack; the regionally famous la tarte flambée – these are traditionally made on a crepe-thin pizza dough topped with creme fraiche, (a thick soured cream mixed with a delicate fresh white cheese called fromage blanc) plus lardons (sort of bacon) and very thinly sliced onion (but many variations occur including chocolate occur). They are cooked in a very hot wood-fired oven, where flames circulate over the top. The base should be blistered but not burnt.

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Bringing home the breakfast croissants and baguettes in the morning

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breakfast – bread, quince jelly and coffee

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A beautifully formed ice cream, shaped like a rose

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The regional delicacy; the very famous, perfectly coiffed, kugelhopf cake (comparisons to Italian panettone are not far out)

 

 

 

Lunch at a restaurant in the forest at Koenigsbruck (that’s Alex in the right picture)

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Cruditiés: carrot, celeriac, beetroot, tomato, rocket,,,

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Main: an excellent interpretation of a fish hamburger (with chips) – at the base fish pieces are molded with a dill sauce, with a triangular slice of bread on top of that, followed by a layer of soft cheese and a few sprouts; plus a few gherkins are on the side with a dab of tomato sauce hidden under the bread.

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cafe gourmand, somewhat richer than coffee alone

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Walking some of this off with a stroll along the Rhine; the course of this wide, swift-following river has been straightened to facilitate river trade, and the former areas along the banks on the other side of this dyke, turned into aquatic wetlands.

Closed on Mondays

We have not yet got our head around the fact that many places in regional France are closed on Mondays; which is fair enough as they open over le weekend.

Not knowing this, and with the military precision The Monash would be proud of, we set off on Monday on a circuit of several places of interest north west of here. First the caves of Nours; these are kms of tunnels which have been a refuge since the middle ages, and contain WW1 soldiers graffiti. Next was the town of Vignacourt which was made famous (in Australia) by the discovery a couple of years ago of about a cubic meter of glass negatives in an attic. These were of diggers taken on leave in the town in WW1 (it was a rest area). I had been to the lost diggers exhibition in the Perth Museum, see in 2014. And finally to Bertangles, close to Vignacourt, which was the command center for Australian troops in WW1, housed in a chateau.

As I have indicated we arrived at the Caves (along with several others, including French people) to find it was Fermé. So instead all you can see is lots of pictures of Vignacourt and of the chateau.

Vignacourt was  delightful because its only moderately changed in 100 years. You can get an idea of what the diggers would have seen. Also they have a few of these images mounted on the walls around town.  I have said before, Australia is remembered in street names, flags and images in these towns in ways I would not have expected.

NOW and THEN, the town hall (with the siren on top) and buildings each side the same.

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There is nothing special here, I just like the variety and colour in this architecture

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Bertangles

And now some of the chateau, love the gates and its hunting theme and all the yards around the back. I can only imagine that in the war, there were some great parties here.

Compared to the vernacular architecture of the towns, this is how the rich (once) lived.

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I like this architecture, so here are more pictures of villages around here.

A few pictures of Harbonnières, which saw pretty rugged fighting in 1918

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note the history in the naming of this street

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The ANZAC myth/spirit

warning – this is a draft i am struggling with ,,,,

“Daddy when I grow up, I want to be an ANZAC”

“That’s nice son (?daughter!), but let’s wait and see what the careers adviser says”

It’s a tricky thing this ANZAC myth/identity/spirit thing, and the longer you are here in France,  the more you examine it. I have seen many more Australian flags flying here than in any Abbott government press conference. Around here on the Western Front the French really appear to take Australia’s role 100 years ago as a serious part of local history, in a way i have not seen other countries remembered. Thank heavens we offered them a $40B contract to build our submarines.

On the topic of ANZAC myths, every single person will have opinions differing in both vehemence and directions. It is inflammatory territory; is it better to stick to travel, food and weather .. and avoid politics, religion and sex? Probably yes, but against all advice, I will try and describe some of my pondering; its more from the book of Ramblings than of Revelations. I struggle with it.

I think that is is a good and necessary thing for both people and peoples to have an somewhat definable identity and myths and stories underwriting this.

Why Australia might choose to identify itself through the ‘Anzac myth’ that is, some wartime activity is not immediately obvious. However as we did perform in this war under a national flag, its not unreasonable that we should look at our behavior then.

Australians are ready now to identify the ANZAC myth with a number of distinctive qualities. These would include in my view a certain anti-authoritarian larrikinism, resilience, equality, toughness, resourcefulness in the face of adversity, mateship, as well as dash and daring in combat. The victories celebrated in the Somme; Le Hamel, Villers Bretonneux, Peronne/Mont St Quentin, the events around Pozieres (Mouquet Farm, Gilbraltar, Windmill) and at Passchendaele are all presented to showcase these qualities.

As is well known, the label ANZAC derived from the relatively brief time that the Army Corps of Australia and New Zealand served together under British command against the Ottoman Empire in 1915. After that, the two forces served separately in Europe. Not that this action was successful, and nor that ANZAC troops were in any majority in terms of this action (the British losses were twice ours, the French about the same as the total for both countries). Somehow out of this adversity  a myth or identity was created and the first identifiable ANZAC celebrations occurred in 1916. The legacy was built on during the course of a bloody war and remains today.

There is no question that this identity was born in immense blood and suffering, huge resilience and some later victories.

Depending on whose figures you quote, roughly one in five (61K of 310K) Australians who went overseas died, and the majority of survivors who returned were injured, physically and / or mentally (one source says 4/5). Similar for New Zealand. That is a staggering figure. This human lose of young males, all volunteers was huge loss for a young colony. (Just for the record, the loss as a percentage of the total population of their nations it was actually modest  when compared to the participating European countries.) This emotional as well as physical toll would be paid by many of the men and their families for the rest of their lives and it echoed for generations. How do you accommodate such sacrifice into a society in an palatable form?

While early public predictions by both sides were for a short war, many others with deeper knowledge disputed the likelihood of this and were proved right. Indeed this was a war, whose game plan involved a high level of human attrition. Some say that senseless attrition itself became the name of the game. Exhausting German supply of men and materials was central to producing their defeat. Thus the aim was not ideas or identity that failed or won, but mega economics. (Ironically after this war Germany created a myth was they were never defeated; its borders were never breached). One might argue that the real ‘victory’ of WW1 achieved at the negotiating table was the capacity of the USA, France and UK to influence the borders and politics of the future Europe and the Middle East. Another legacy we live with. I had no real knowledge of the pre-war boundaries of the Ottoman empire, the subsequent creation of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the so-called Arab states, Palestine, the foreshadowing of Israel, the boundaries of modern Turkey, Greece etc.  A litany of agreements, promises, alliances, deals and ambitions. I am very sure that most of the men who went to fight for King and Country had very little idea of the great game they were participating in.

On top of patriotism, at some primal level there is a disturbing and theoretical attraction to war – arguably more among those who have not experienced it. Historically, engaging in wars has largely been a male activity – whereas the dying of civilians has been more democratically distributed. Whether this attraction is an extension of some primal hunting / territorial urge I don’t know, but in the end that also comes down, at least in part, to a physical way of negotiation for power and limited resources. I also think there is a tendency in men (I hate to say its ‘natural’), to turn a situation into something physical when threatened or wanting to dominate. Women may choose display or discussion or a physical response, but I give them credit for reviewing more options. OK simple gender politics. This of course is not justifying or endorsing force, simply saying there is a primal urge at the back of the brain, and in civilized society (pretty much by definition) we manage and negotiate urges with ourselves all the time. I don’t think I am saying anything new here; and that this spreads from the personal to the political is hardly surprising. Depending on who you read, colonial / imperial competition in militaristic societies was close to the core of why WW1 started, and these processes continue.

We recognize many of these qualities evoked in war are those sometimes celebrated as ‘manly’ virtues. These would include (overt or covert) aggression, competition, fitness and some form of physical victory. Between men pursuing this, there is bonding and sense of unity, fraternity and purpose, and sometimes within this, a hierarchy and discipline. In turn this is underwritten by uniforms and pride in the effectiveness or deadliness of the tools of trade. Despite all its downside, many men reminisce fondly, at least about some aspects of war or military service. I also acknowledge that for the last 100 years those who served are not forgotten by their contemporaries. But in some ways it is easier to eulogise and remember the dead than to stick up and fight post-war bureaucracy for the living or to question why they died.

In Australia, as in many countries, military interests play a significant role in our social and political hierarchy; two of the last three Governors General have been ex-military leaders, as is our current Australian of the Year. There were claims of political influence in selection of the Prime Ministers award for History in 2007 in choosing a book, The Great War. We remain moderate military spenders; according to world bank data, around 7% of total Australian government spending is consumed by the military, compared to around 3% by New Zealand, 5% by the UK; however this is small compared to the more than 20% by the USA and Russia.

Within my family I recall the war experience of my parents. My father had been in the naval volunteers before the second world war, was called up into the Army and moved to the Air Force. He went off to the Pacific Islands for 3 years in communications. On return in 1945 he wanted little to do with the military. He left the servicemen’s organisation after a few years and attended no war memorial events. He wanted nothing to do with the boozy, blokey, pro-war culture that such places involved. I don’t think this was an isolated situation. He was also moved to tears by the War Museum in Canberra, which evoked memories of those he knew who had died. I am named after one. My mother’s father was killed at Gallipoli; this left a widow with two young kids. Many choices were made due to the times, but few served my mother or her brother well.

In the 24 years I spent growing up in New Zealand I think I went to one ANZAC day service as a boy scout at my primary school. I remember poppy day at school each year and invalid war returnees making wooden household items and one legged or one armed men serving as railway crossing guards. There was a WW1 invalid who lived two doors down the road, he had one leg, a white beard  and walked with a cane. ANZAC and WW2 celebrations were pretty low key affairs. Indeed until my thirties, spanning both countries, my main memories are that these events had dying attendances both of servicemen and families. After we finally got over opposition to Vietnam, including to those who were conscripted, there seemed to be a resurgence of an ANZAC spirit. Having seem how the media and Governments in the prelude to WW1 moderated sentiments, the source of this renewed interest appears to stem from tapping into other dissatisfaction occurring in the community, such as national identity, than any overall appreciation of the war itself. Hence a need to re-imagine this distant war, when ‘mother country’ meant something, and draw from it virtues we would like to think define us.

So how does our ANZAC myth serve us now?  Any identity distant from any defining roots is open to all sorts of interpretation. Such a myth is subjective; it has no defining document.

What was written around the time, are hundreds perhaps thousands of diaries, commentaries like those of the official war historian Charles Bean (who took 32 years to complete his official history), reporters Keith Murdoch, Hurley (more for pictures), Phillip Schuler and Charles Smith as well as various official war histories. All of these were subject to heavy censorship (which Murdoch famously once broke to tell about the debacle of the Dardanelles campaign). Dozens, perhaps hundreds of books have followed by those who were there, including pacifist / realist oriented texts such as “Her Privates We” (Frederick Manning) and “Two Masters” (Arthur Wheen) describing the dehumanizing effects of the war on individuals.

Others like Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, the British war correspondent, followed the ANZACS closely and helped give birth to the ANZAC legend. (He also damned the campaign, describing the final offensive as “the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the Battle of Bannockburn”. He was ordered to leave Gallipoli).

No doubt in the official histories, and despite Bean’s search for accuracy, there is extensive hagiography. Below is cited from The National Library of Australia commenting on the official correspondents:

“… each or the correspondents … experienced the frustrations of censorship …. Some reports were overly colourful and generous to a point which sat uneasily with some Australian soldiers. An entry in The Anzac Book (London: Cassell, 1916), quoted by Ken Inglis, was straight to the point:

Oh, I’ve snarled to read the phrases that the writers coined for us- ‘Deathless heroes-Lasting Glory’, and other foolish fuss. For we’re simple, sinful soldiers, and we’re often rude and rough, And our characters ain’t altered since we donned the khaki stuff.”

The point is that even in 1915-16 there was myth creation for the public back home. Its extremely difficult to have an unbiased view of what happened in its totality.

This brand management continues in 2016, witness the sacking of SBS reporter Scott McIntyre over his ‘inappropriate’ tweets on ANZAC day, which included reference to the rape and pillage conducted by Australian troops on leave in Egypt and recorded in diaries.

The Australian War memorial describes the ANZAC spirit as:

Many saw the Anzac spirit as having been born of egalitarianism and mutual support. According to the stereotype, the Anzac rejected unnecessary restrictions, possessed a sardonic sense of humour, was contemptuous of danger, and proved himself the equal of anyone on the battlefield.

Australians still invoke the Anzac spirit in times of conflict, danger and hardship….

The word “Anzac”, however, has different meanings for different people, and so remains open to interpretation.

I think what also strikes you the more you wander the cemeteries, is the vast number of men who died, and in fact so few were Australian. Not only that, non Australian Commonwealth troops also won a lot of VCs and engaged in bitter conflicts. In some ways this is the bleeding obvious, that we did not have a monopoly on virtues. Indeed if you really want to push the envelope, consider the German advances in early 1918; there had been a stalemate for three years and yet with new tactics and resolve they pushed the front line a hundred times further than the previous three years. They became extended and ran out of supplies and resources and were routed at places like Villers Bretonneux by formidable Australian troops, so victories were not confined to one side.

I suspect many of the so-called  ‘ANZAC’ attributes –  the humor, issues with class and authority, contempt for danger – are shown by many groups of fighting men. However if recognizing these helps soldiers to function in the highly disciplined and stressed environment of combat, so be it. What I am prouder of in the Australian military is their attempts to come to grips with their own internal traditions, like sexual equality and sexual identity issues. Toughness comes in many forms, including the capacity to make ethical judgments. Many modern Armies have done likewise, but Armies have long been the bastion of conservative thinking. What they have struggled with, and this may be more the problem of government than the Army, is getting sufficient recognition for those whose lives have been adversely affected by service. Deaths from combat have declined, but those from self harm after returning from combat zones has skyrocketed. For these challenges the immediacy of the ANZAC spirit is no use, indeed it may be an impediment. Bravery, discipline, sardonic humor and stiff upper lip have never been any help, mate-ship, as well as long term support is.

I also think some challenges of this new century are different than ever before. Some are identified by what is happening in US politics, the use of new technology like the  use of drones, the issue of impending  and catastrophic climate change. Its nothing to do with individuals; when you are the boots on the ground and there is a risk you will be a casualty, you do need all the courage you can muster and  the support of those around you. War and servicemen and women serve complex ends  driven by local and global political agendas; they do that in obedient of those agendas, and they are among those who pay the price for that service, along with the people whom they act on. There is no easy answer, but socially we need to be extremely wary of reaching for the means to exert military power.

 

 

 

Amiens

We originally passed through the city of Amiens when picking up the rental car en route to our AirBnB house ‘The Chicken Coup’in Laviéville. We returned later to have a decent look at the world heritage listed, Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens.

This Gothic cathedral was built between 1220 and 1270 and is simply breathtaking. Its the tallest and largest in France. Considering all that was available at the time was animal and hand-labor, it must have been the design, engineering and artistic marvel of its day.

Enough words, if you want more go information, go here, otherwise i will let pictures tell the story.

First some exterior, as you can see the front (and parts of the side) are have hundreds of carved figures; each tells a story or represents saints or other religious activities. Its almost fractal like; you can see the big picture, but then you want to go to the smaller detail and smaller detail and pretty soon you would have to crawl like a human fly over the surface looking at all the individual human figures and animals and what they might be doing. I can imagine that in preliterate times this was a gigantic story book, with hundreds of stories and biblical references to trigger the imagination and teach religion.

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When you get inside the effect of the tall stone columns, along with all the edges of the stonework is simply stunning. I don’t know much about architecture but i think quite a lot of the decorative stonework, like the pulpit, is 17th and 18th Century

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The irregular floor tiling below is a maze, the walking of which was considered an act of pilgrimage.

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But what really is the most delightful part, at least to me, are the many small polychrome carvings which come in series, such as John the Baptist. The head of John is reputed to be kept here, as a religious icon, brought back from the crusades. _DSC3938smcp

there are other tales of Saints as well

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The intimate detail of a whole story can be contained within a single small panel.

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I have no idea what this story is, but you can feel the power of it in these.

On a slightly more contemporary note, there are flags from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA and Newfoundland in one of the side chapels, having been presented following the WW1 (now slightly worse for wear). The chapel has a gold covered Madonna (the woman pictured was reading the signs, not praying). The cathedral suffered only very minor damage in the war, despite the town being occupied briefly in 1914 and shelled in 1918.

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More or less behind this is the small statue of the Weeping Angel. I have used an internet picture of this, better than mine. (attribution). This statue had great appeal for the soldiers in WW1 and was regularly the theme of post cards sent home. Weeping_angel

Market

There was a Saturday market in one of the car parks on the bank of the Somme, where we parked in visiting the cathedral, and I took some pictures and stocked up on more cheese, sausages (duck), paté and vegetables.

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Belgium; more than chocolates

All I previously knew about Belgium was Brussels, chocolates, waffles and …  Mathias Cormann? I had heard of Ypres and Passchendaele but never really knew exactly where they were.

I went to the museums in both these cities which pay tribute in their unique ways to the war.

Ypres

Ypres (French/English name), (locally called Iepers Dutch/Flemish name) is a small town in Southern Belgium dating from Roman times that was completely obliterated by shelling (including early use of gas) during the war. It was one of the few Belgium towns not captured, although the front line curved around it (the Salient). It was rebuilt along the lines of its traditional architecture. Churchill had wanted to leave it as a ruin and reminder; fortunately the locals had other ideas. It is very lovely. In the center is the rebuilt 13th century Cloth Hall, which is now a very large museum called ‘In Flanders Fields’. All war museums are different, but its hard to describe in a few words how. An excellent  70 page pdf file about the museum can be found here

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IMG_3178smcpThis one seems to echo the anguish and carefully considered voice of a people who did not want the war (they considered themselves neutral until invaded) and suffered deeply as a consequence. Statistically, their percentage male death rate (~2%) was less than the UK, Australia or New Zealand, (all around 10%). Not that 2% of a male population is trivial, particularly as much of this occurred early in brave attempts to protect their country which were simply out-manned and out-gunned. There were also terrible retributions on the civilian populations. More than a million fled. Many cities were destroyed. The Belgiums flooded large parts of the countryside by opening the dykes and these regions remained un-invaded for the war.

The museum is intensely personal, telling the war stories and suffering of many people and having these stories read out (life-sized videos) by civilians, Germans or Allied troops. The rationale / analysis provided of the period leading up to the war which ended the Belle Époque (of the wealthy, the artists and intellectuals). This cites the combined effects of colonialism, racism, militarism and imperial contests. These are all illustrated, using local, French and British posters and newspapers, including children’s games  and reenacted videos.

It is really evident how public opinion is manipulated by the press and the state. You ask yourself the same question; what has changed?

 

When we got home, Lib saw the above pictures of this patriotic handkerchief, and sang this song, learnt in the 60’s in primary school. I guess I carried a gun at cadets.

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Inside the cavernous space of the museum, with high wooden beams and stone walls, a convoluted path of small and large displays and exhibits. There was the
usual crowds of school children working on projects.

 

German and Allied battles on Belgium soil saw some of the most costly fighting in terms of human lives of a very bloody war. At the end of a pretty harrowing couple of hours of looking at shells, guns, bayonets, trench reconstructions, uniforms, maps and many many stories of fighting and resistance, past all the memorials of war, you exit via a series of final curtains, which list in detail the hundreds of bloody conflicts that ensued since; ending with Syria, 2015-.IMG_3200smcp

I have no idea what the new WW1 exhibition in Canberra will do, but the dialogue and sentiments of this place, while recognizing the qualities of heroism, vastly overshadow this with analysis of the causes, the human  suffering of men, women, children, as well as the destruction of cultural heritage and degradation of the land, and the sheer destructive madness of the whole enterprise. This is no place of celebration and the memories are just outside the door.

“Time, grief and memory, sanitize sentimentalize and warp the reality” from the book Siegfried Sassoon, by John Stuart Roberts, commenting on the poem, Aftermath.

Indeed Sassoon more than a mention in the Museum; there is a large banner with his poem  A wooden cross, written following the death of a close friend. Sassoon had initially been a heroic participant in the war, (Military Cross), and gradually became strongly outspoken in opposing his Government’s pursuit of it. At the time of writing he had been confined to a mental institution in response to this resistance.

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate, a couple of hundred meters from the Museum and on the city walls, records the names of 54,000 soldiers from Commonwealth Countries who fell in these campaigns and have no known graves. It does not include the thousands of New Zealanders, who are named at three other sites. Every evening since 1928 at precisely eight o’clock, traffic around the Gates is stopped while the Last Post is sounded beneath the gate by the local fire brigade. This is except for a period during the Second World War when Ypres was occupied by Germany. The tradition was continued in the UK during the war and was resumed at the Gate on the very evening of liberation, 6 September 1944.

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Not all see the Gate quite so heroically. Sassoon re-visted Ypers in the early 1920s and was disgusted at its tourist trap nature, and how individuals he had known were reduced to closely spaced names on a wall.

“Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?”
— Siegfried Sassoon, On Passing the Menin Gate

Passchendaele

And so 12 kms (as the shell flies) east across the flat marshy landscape is Passchendaele. A tiny town on the other side of then front-line, that is synonymous with some of the worst fighting in the war. This town was part of the Allied objective in 1917. Estimates of casualties vary, but were probably 250,000 Allies and 400,000 Germans. Many books have been written about the multiple battles  (also called Battle of Ypres); see extensive Wikipedia entry, here.

After months of fighting in surrounding areas, the First Battle of Passchendaele (so called third battle of Ypres) occurred on 12 October 1917 in heavy rain and thigh-deep mud and lacked sufficient artillery support. Advances were made and then lost in counter attacks. There were 13,000 Allied casualties, included 2,735 New Zealanders  – the single worst day in New Zealand military history.

To remind you of mud, here is the famous photo by Frank Hurley of Australian troops in the region.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1446191Chateauwood

The museum at Passchendaele is well worth a visit. Its smaller and housed in what is  a large two story chateaux, rebuilt after the war. It has a lot of original material about uniforms, the kit soldiers carried, the different battles in the region, the best collection of gas shells and gas masks, (you can even smell the different gases), the usual guns and mortars, some original carts and an extensive underground ‘city’ with about 20 rooms all claustrophobic and timber-lined plus an extensive outdoor trench system that must be a boon for teachers when the school kids are getting restless. It has separate rooms dedicated to each of New Zealand and Australia in the war, with uniforms, items, old photos and interviews.

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Finally a couple of trivia questions about hats.

  1. What did the US and NZ have in common in terms of uniform? Correct they both had ‘lemon-squeezer’ hats (below: NZ on left with red band, US on right with other kit)
  2. What changes occurred in Australian slouch hats in the war? Correct. Monash allowed them worn with a flat brim, with the badge on the front rather than the original turned up with the badge on the right side. (no picture yet).

ANZAC Day at Villers-Bretonneux

If we had any particular time and place where we wanted to be on this relatively unplanned trip, it was dawn at Villers-Bretonneux on ANZAC day. We did not have any expectations or plan within this; it was a case of ‘being there’. It was also significant, as the main action in Lib’s book occurs at this date and place.

Villers-Bretonneux is being reinvented as the ANZAC Cove of the Somme. It has long been a site of remembrance. Go here for a French historic perspective: “The Imperial Nature of the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux”

The dawn service started around 3:30 am with the Air Force Band and a Queensland choir singing patriot songs; Danny Boy, I love a sun-burnt country (put to music) and others, followed by a recording of the full version of ‘Green Fields Of France’ by Eric Bogle (the song is also known as Private Willie McBride). This was pretty gutsy planning I thought, as it ends with sentiments that are not typical of these services:

The sun’s shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “The Cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

They then projected maybe 20 minutes of old film clips onto the white tower. These were showing troop movements, charges over the top, big guns and explosions, wading through the mud, etc. Some of these are well known, others were original to me and priceless relics of the time past.

Two more recent videos were shown of interviews with servicemen in their 90s. One recalled enlisting to protect the woman and children rather than for any other reason, and related how he had been saved from an exploding shell by the presence of an officer standing in front of him. He was very grateful to the officer, and after that lost his fear of being killed. Another repeatedly that he was unemotional about death, he has seen it happen so often, even with his own brother, no emotion. There were some other sound tracks I don’t recall.

There was a delightful modern touch when it all went silent and we were asked to be patient. Apparently the ceremony at ANZAC Cove was running late and we were delayed to synchronize our link to the satellite to upload the feed for National Broadcaster. Welcome to 2016.

The main service commenced at 5:30, with the arrival of various officials and flag bearers. The proceeding were a series of addresses; Master of Ceremonies, prayers of remembrance and peace, the commemorative address by the GG, Peter Cosgrove, (if you want to bookend that; add ‘General the Honourable Sir’ to the front and ‘AK, MC (ret)’ to the back). Some of the speech is reported here in the Australian. A Hymn (the Lord is my Shepard, – a version with “… and I want to follow, wherever he leads me, wherever he goes..” not the “He makes me down to lie,,,”), another commemorative address, this one by a senior French Official (Minister for Defense ?) which being in French remains unknown to me (and is not on the web), and then a reading from a stretcher bearer’s diary, (mud, death, waste, decay), wreath laying, first by the official parties and then of any members of the public. Had we given this more thought we could have remembered EG Morgan, Libby’s great Uncle, who has no known grave and whose name is on the memorial. After that it was the Ode, Last Post, One-minutes silence, Reveille (around now the dawn was appearing), rousing singing of Australian and French National Anthems, and a final blessing, followed by the ordered departures of the different officials and military personnel.

Free coffee and croissants.

Some pictures

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On arrival, you can see it was cold; the breath and the moon.

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Selfie at 4 am before it starts.

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The choir before the start.

I did not take pictures during the ceremony itself; people waving phones and cameras reduces the gravitas.

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Early dawn after the ceremony ends.

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Wreaths, note the patriotic garb of attendee.

After taking this picture, some poncy Australian military official hastened the public way from this area and the wall, as it was interfering with something which was not obvious – the emu parade? This terminated our search for EG Morgan (and that of quite a few others). Hot coffee awaited.

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Very welcome coffee and cakes were served down where buses left from.

After a 2 km walk back to Corbie, we picked up the car and went to the local service in the town of Villers-Bretonneux itself.

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Peter Cosgrove again led the official party, including a lot of local mayors, led by a piper.

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A short, simple, albeit impressive ceremony, with French guard of honor, flags, laying of wreathes, a band leading the singing of both National Anthems, some saluting and that was about it. There was an well attended concert in the church of organ and trumpet music which we attended for about an hour.

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In the end, ANZAC day is organised and paid for by Government agencies and has the heavy presence of each of the Armed Forces. Bus loads of these attended, Army, Air Force and Navy; presumably most are flown in for this purpose. It is an act of theater in one sense. The attendance of the military is not surprising, and there were also bus loads of school kids who had come from Australia as well, not to mention hundreds of what I presume were Vets from the age and medals worn by civilians. And of course we were there too, for our own reasons, although patriotism and identity were not at the forefront, we have accepted the King’s shilling.

Never the less, I find this complicated. The act of ‘remembering the dead’, their ‘sacrifice’, making places ‘sacred’, not to mention a focus on acts of extraordinary valor (insanely hazardous, which often did result in death) and the ‘fighting spirit’ all seem to be distant to an understanding of why this war was important, if indeed it was. My brief exposure to its roots, suggest it grew out of multiple causes and attitudes; imperialism, colonialism, industrial power, the rise of militarism, a highly class structured society, plus Australia as a colony owing allegiance to the mother country… and many more. I appreciate can be a thousand perspectives on all this, but simplistic approaches do not illuminate complex situations.

I am happy to believe that the antipodeans were courageous, resourceful, resilient, brave and successful in this theater. When does an (our) Army rationally walk away from the irrationality of war. But accepting the ANZAC myth is also about accepting a package, and I have no confidence that the goods that get wrapped up inside this package are what are needed into the future, any more than they were in 1914.I may write more on this.

Some more pictures of  Villers Bretonneux taken on a later visit

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Below; the memorial is on the right of these pictures. It is a side on view, the tower is on far right and the white square buildings close to the road; you get a feeling for the rural location and hill-top position.

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Edward Morgan is Libby’s mother’s uncle, among the 11,200 Australians whose remains were never found.

Cemeteries … and some memorials

IMG_3157smIt might seem a bit weird to have a post just about cemeteries and memorials, that is, until you have been here. Then they become a topic and an object in themselves.

One reason is there are so many of them and they stand out. British and Commonwealth dead (remember Australia fought under British command late 1917, as did Canada, New Zealand etc) were generally buried in smaller separate cemeteries close to the field of action.

Those with classic schooling will recall Robert Brook’s : “…there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England“.

There are 956 cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in Belgium and France. Around here (near Albert) they occur every couple of kms, in places of more intense fighting, they are less than a km apart. The different Somme campaigns, 1916-18, in this region consumed the lives of over 1,000,000 soldiers.

Typically you are driving along, and there, among the rolling fields of green or yellow crops or freshly tilled soil, is a small oasis on the edge of the road. These are often the size of one or two tennis courts, with identical white headstones (not crosses) all in symmetric rows, with a large white cross at one end and a low wall all around. Sometimes there are a couple of trees. The Commonwealth nationalities and ranks are mixed. Occasionally, the CWGC cemeteries are adjacent to or within existing civilian cemeteries.

For reference, this only applies to CWGC cemeteries as burial practices differed with Nations. As I understand it, the French dead were usually (not always) repatriated to their home towns. For Americans, apparently, in 1920, after a huge public campaign, the equivalent of $0.4B in today’s terms was spent bringing home the remains of around 60% of their dead, the rest are in cemeteries in Europe.  The Germans, as I understand it, usually buried their dead in mass graves (eg 25,000 at Vladslo in Belgium, 130,000 German and French Unknown in a giant ossuary, at Douaumont (near Verdun)), see, and built monuments in home towns. There is a rare German cemetery at Fricourt, (near Pozieres) but our attempt to find it was unsuccessful; we lost interest when, what was indicated as the lane leading to it, degraded to a 2-wheel track in a wheat field. We were told that Germans visiting their own war graves would not be popular locally – (this was mimed as “bang, bang”).

Some pictures about cemeteries.

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Two views of a cemetery close to Albert. Like most, it looks out over beautiful gently- rolling hill sides.

 

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For Australians; the most significant. The cemetery at the memorial at Villers-Bretonneax. Approximately 800 of 2000 buried here are Australian.

Some epitaphs are poignant, so many are of ‘unknown” identity

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There are six Australian war graves in the tiny hamlet where we live (Lavieville)

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In the very small town of Bonnay, war graves adjacent to, and in contrast to the style of, the local cemetery

IMG_3149Literally some corner of a foreign field …. one of 18 within 3 kms of Beaumont-Hamel

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Parc-memorial terre-neuvien, (New Foundland/Canadian/UK) burials are in this walled area, with headstones in a circle. The other three within this memorial park have a conventional grid layout.

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“INCONNU” – grave marker of unknown French soldier, at Thiepval

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Another place of brutal fighting where Australians lost men and won some battles

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The crosses are French soldiers from 1914 to 1918, presumably buried in their home cemetery.

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New Zealanders among soldiers from all around the Commonwealth

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These are from the 13 and 14th Australian Battalion: Libby’s book is about them

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This is the only time I have seen Chinese workers remembered, died 1 year after the war

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What is this German doing here – from rough translation, this is the equivalent of the unknown warrior and the name is fictional

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The only time i have seen the grave of an Indian labourer in a Commonwealth grave

 

Memorials

Memorials come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and differ in the sentiments they generate.

IMG_3056 (2)smcpThe  (British) Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is the largest of its type in the world. It sits atop a hill and commands the surrounding farmland. It is constructed as a towering series of arches, the lower walls of which contain the names of over 72,000 British and South Africans who have no known burial site. I have no idea if this is aesthetically successful, it is impressive in its sheer imposing-ness, but i am not sure what it is meant to say. It reminds me how much I like the US Vietnam memorial in Washington, whose the single long sloping wall of black marble evokes the enormity of the campaign and moves people to tears.

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I don’t yet have a good picture of the Australian memorial at Villers Bretonneax, this is looking towards the memorial from the cemetery, but does not showcase its tower or walls (containing the names of 11,000 Australians with no known graves).

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This is looking the other way, across the rolling hill country.

IMG_3095sm cpNew Zealand has a relatively modest monument at Longueval, in the form of an obelisk, across the base is inscribed this poignant line. We were there alone on a cold windy day, and it seemed even more true.

Another Australian site at Le Hamel, which ranks in Australian military history with Villers-Bretonneax, has a new, very imposing monument. hamel2

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I like monuments which pay respectful tribute to the dead; surely that is enough. To me, quoting the French President saying how ‘you have astonished the whole continent’, seems like an expensive exercise in ‘education’ for those who think they  won the war (Lib’s response was “but we did!”). OK, I get irony.

As this plaque describes, in this small area around the IMG_3066smtown of Pozieres in the Somme in 1916, Australian troops suffered 23,000 causalities, including 7000 dead in 41 days.

This was bounded by three sites, Gibraltar, the Windmill and Mouquet Farm

 

The Australian 1st Division monument, a simple obelisk, at Gibraltar, near Pozieres. ‘Gibraltar’ was a heavily fortified German bunker, which saw huge Australian losses, not only in the original capture, but also in the intense barrage the occupying Australians were then subjected to for days. They held on. Photos taken in 1918 after the capture (here) show a landscape of ruin and devastation.

IMG_3075smThe Windmill site, marked with only a plaque and flags. Ironically, the background is now filled with wind turbines.

Mouquet Ferme, (moo-cow  farm) another site of eventual success at great cost.

The Canadians have several monuments, one is the Parc-memorial terre-neuvien. (Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial) is distinctive. This is in the form of a park, and allows a self guided walking tour over the land occupied by British/Canadian and German Trenches; the landscape  has only partly been restored, although obviously grows a heavy crop of grass. The park includes four cemeteries, as well as remains of British and German trenches. The area is full of live ammunition. This was the site of one of the heaviest percent losses of any engagement, where the Newfoundland Regiment lost over 70% of its 780 members in a single (unsuccessful) charge at well entrenched German positions. The park has the casting of a caribou as its centerpiece.

Pictures show Lib in a trench with the caribou stag behind, one of several parties of French school children on tour here (more trenches on left), and Lib with one of the guides supplied by the Canadian Government. These guides just stand around and talk to people and answer any questions. It seemed like such a good idea to have this. There is a sense of reverence and deep respect at this site. Thousands died here in the area of a football field. Those advancing were delayed by having to over climb the mounting corpses of the fallen. One notice board said it was ‘sacred’ ground; a term I struggle with.

Finally there are the French memorials. I took photos of two, although they are not uncommon in the myriad of small towns you pass through. Some list the dead of WW1, some of both wars, (including in the second, classifications included civilians who died, were deported or were shot).

I love the Pieta like configuration of the above and the tragic / sentimental nature of the one below – the rough stone, the lamenting woman, the simple words “For our dead”.

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L’Ecole Victoria at Villers Bretonneax

Victoria School (‘L’Ecole Victoria’) at Villers Bretonneax bears a plaque which reads that the school was “built in 1923-1927 …[and] is the gift from the children of the State of Victoria, Australia, to the children of Villers-Bretonneux as proof of their love and good-will towards France. Twelve hundred Australian soldiers, fathers and brothers of these children, gave their lives for the heroic recapture of the town on April 24th and 25th, 1918”.

Lib had contacted a teacher at the school and had arranged to pay a visit. The school is undergoing major refurbishment at present. The yard, hall ways and class rooms were all decked in Australian flags and inscriptions about remembering Australia.

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Here, I suspect Australia has genuinely never been forgotten, while in Australia, Villers Bretonneax is about to be re-remembered.

 

The visit could not have gone better. Lib reaLib reading RRd a class of 25 7-8 year old children Banjo and Ruby Red and gave copies of other books. The teacher  provided a language and action translation of dogs bark, chickens squark etc. The rhythms may have been lost in translation (wouf, and cheep), but not the concepts, or the fun.

She answered questions like “How old are ywm4ou ? How long does it take to fly here? and others.

They provided a stirring rendition of “Never Forget Australia” in French, followed by “Waltzing Matilda”.

They also gave Lib a beautifully class-illustrated copy of Waltzing Matilda.

 

Lib gave them each a toy Koala.  koala2

 

The laws about images of children in publicly accessible media are the same in France as Australia; that is, permission is needed. This limits what can be shown here.

Before and After the War

Its perhaps useful to say something brief about before and after the war. I don’t recall leaning anything 50 years ago in school about this, and suspect that had ‘Causes of the First World War’ been taught, it would have been about German aggression, Belgium atrocities, the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand and the ’cause of freedom’.

There is an excellent display at both the Peronne museum  and the FLinders museum about this pre/post history and the graphics are taken from there (sorry about the quality, often taken through glass). Its also interesting seeing a French perspective; for example, the Boer War is portrayed with much more sympathy to the Dutch settlers. It would appear this was a very dirty war, full of British atrocities towards the settlers.

Space in Peronne is also dedicated to the Japanese / Russian War of 1904/5, (the Japanese had totally ‘Westernised’ their forces and the ‘white-man’ lost). This was the first ‘modern’ war where both sides extensive used artillery and machine guns and presciently this developed into a trench warfare stalemate, rather than a short-sharp victory as both sides anticipated. These lessons were not learned by WW1 planners; both sides predicting a short victorious war. Indeed this nearly happened, with Germans rapidly advancing close to Paris in 1914, only to be pushed back with an enormous loss of French lives.

In brief the world in 1914 looked nothing like it does today in terms of national boundaries (let me display my ignorance), with enormous Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The former included Serbia and Poland up to Russia, while the latter covering much of (what is now called) the Middle East; Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey as well as into Bulgaria and Rumania. Both Russia and Germany had different boundaries.

The sensibilities were so different. European powers vied for colonies in Africa, the Pacific, SE Asia, India and elsewhere.

The extraordinary racist attitudes of the times is shown below. IMG_2916 sm

As I understand it, the translation goes something along the lines of: “It seems you have shot quite a few of these people of Malagascar?” response: “Yes, since someone broke the skin of my drum, I have needed to beat some other donkey skin”

or this one:

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I think the translation is along the lines “hang on, the treaty of Algeria told us to make peaceful penetrations, and i am [following] on that program” ie having sex with this (local) woman

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Colonial suppression was a child’s game to be played out with lead soldiers.

 

Throughout Europe militarization was rife and an increasingly  accepted; children were often dressed as ‘little soldiers’ and military service was compulsory in many countries. Thus ‘mobilization’ could provide enormous armies at short notice for France and Germany, although most of Britain’s army was employed to keep ‘peace’ in her colonial empire.

There was also a complex web of treaties, providing support if other members were attacked, eg Britain, France and Russia. It was the Austo-Hungarian’s demands on Serbia (too outrageous to be acceptable) following the assassination which triggered Russia’s involvement and then this house of cards of allegiances to precipitate a wider conflict. Britain dominated the seas.

The onset of the conflict was portrayed in this UK poster with an arrogance typical of the period, with the British bulldog biting the nose of one dachshund, while the Russian stream roller nips the tail of another. (Is the British person Churchill , first Lord of the Admiralty? – he does seem to be holding ships on the strings).

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When the war did start it quickly spread to many countries – not just the main powers, but into what is now Iraq, Saudi, colonies in Southern Africa, the Pacific and PNG etc.

 

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When it did end in 1918, after all the treaties and negotiations by 1925 (Germany was forced to accept responsibility, Russia was excluded) the shape looked very different and provided conditions which fermented not only WW2, but conflicts today in the middle east. I wrote more about the consequences of this war in the section on the ANZAC myth.

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Péronne

Péronne is a large town located near the heart of the World War I Somme battlefields, and remained occupied for much of the war. It was the site of a major battle and heavy casualties in late August and early September 1918 in the Allied push east. The seizure, occupation and subsequent liberation took the lives of nearly a third of its citizens. Apparently everyday, the bells of the Town Hall ring out “La Madelon”, a popular French song from the Great War.

The town houses The Museum of the Great War (French: Historial de la Grande Guerre). The museum is newly built and sophisticated and housed within the Château de Péronne, a castle in the center of town. The museum looks mostly at the Great War in two galleries, but more interestingly, there are two additional galleries. One looks at the social history preceding the war, and another gallery looks at the social and political events in the following years. Adjoining parts of the museum are shown below

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Libby has written extensively about this material in her blog and i refer people there.

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Without wishing to appear jingoistic, but given the role Australia played in the town’s liberation, it is perhaps ironic that much of the reference to Australia in the Museum is in the context of the multiple ‘colonies’ which came to assist the war effort. Here we are sharing floor space with other colonial troops, the Brits have their own pit in the background, as do Americans, Germans etc. IMG_2937sm

Given my penchant for trivia, at Peronne the American soldier’s kit included a pack of cards and a folding camera ! (not standard issue, but commonly carried it said) whereas the American soldier’s kit at Flanders included an American flag. Nobody else seemed to treat this a picnic day.

The German and British soldiers kits were pretty functional and included eating implements, shovels, water bottles, first aid, pocket knives, ground covers, spare laces etc. French soldiers kit in both Peronne and in Paschendale museums, both showed greater attention to appearance. Their kit included a range of spare buttons and sewing implements, several cleaning brushes of different types, and (besides a couple of tent pegs?) a martinet, here used for cleaning clothes and shoes!

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In Peronne, no mention is made that the town was largely liberated by Australian forces, (including the winning of three VCs); indeed their excellent and  sophisticated graphical representations give weight to apparent contribution of US forces. Together with Australian victories at neighboring Mont St Quentin, the British Fourth Army’s commander, General Henry Rawlinson, described the Australian advances of August 31 – September 4 as the greatest military achievement of the war (link). Péronne Communal Cemetery Extension holds the remains of 512 Australian soldiers. I did not see any US graves in the Peronne Road cemetery which we visited, only to later learn that America shipped most of their war dead home in the early 1920’s. Perhaps feeling a little left out is one reason why the Australian Government feels a need to build a $100M Education Centre behind the Memorial at Villers Bretonneau! It is fair to say that other war museums (Passchendaele, Flanders, Villers Bretonneux) greatly publicize Australia’s contribution.

What I was also horrified to find was that perhaps the good old Aussie slouch hat was not particularly original. (I am yet to get over the shock of finding a Hills Hoist in the Smithsonian in Washington, labelled as a US invention).The hat was part of the German colonial uniform before the war in Southern Africa – don’t know who was first.

I cover quite a lot of the material from this museum in other more general posts about the history of the war.

The town of Villers-Bretonneux

Villers-Bretonneux is a modest and beautiful small town, nestled in gently rolling countryside of open green fields and occasional woods. The town has narrow winding streets of generally unpretentious houses and a dozen shops. I suspect the town, rebuilt from a shattered ruin after weeks of shelling and combat in 1918, would still be recognizable from the patterns of existing streets and housing and relatively little development.

The town is famous in Australian military history for good reason. The Australian War memorial is built near-by and Australia is held in affection by its inhabitants. Such affection, in a way that is difficult for an (honorary) Australian to reconcile with our current attitudes to this distant war.

There were two closely spaced battles of Villers-Bretonneux in 1918, both involving Australians.

The major German offensive towards Amiens and the sea arrived at Villers Bretonneux on 4th April. Desperate defense by Australian and British troops initially held, and pushed them back a short distance. There was much back and forwards fighting in the following days until by the 17-18th April the Germans mounted a serious assault, drenching the area with gas, causing more than 1000 Australian casualties. Australians withdrew and left the British to hold on. Subsequently the Germans attacked again with troops and tanks, (resulting in the first tank-to-tank battle of the war). The British strategically withdrew, leaving the town in German hands.

Orders to recapture were immediately issued. This led to the second battle of 24-26th of April, a more full account of which can be found here. This involved a dual-pronged night time attack by around 3,900 and heavily outnumbered and out-gunned Australian troops. Due to the strength of the German defenses and lack of heavy weaponry the attack had to be at night. This tactic has been described as “simple, difficult and dangerous” involving a “vital, ferocious, and do–or–die attack”. The town was retaken in “primitive”, “savage”, take-no-prisoners hand-to-hand combat.  Multiple VCs were won for attacking German positions against all odds of personal survival. The attack has been described “as a masterpiece of dash and courage”. It is said that the battle displayed the characteristics which made the AIF such a great fighting force: resilience, courage, skill and aggression.

The battle was one of the decisive actions that saw the halt of, and then the turning back of, the German offensive. This was as far as they got.

In the town there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of Australian and French flags on display, not only on public buildings, but frequently on the balconies of private houses. Most of the shops have window displays and posters advertising events. Shops have ‘welcome Australians’ signs in them. The only Australians we saw were four rusty digger- types, straight from an RSL, in a bar we strayed into looking for food.

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multiple kangaroos in the paddock in front of the town hall

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A somewhat anxious looking Koala inhabiting a flower bed also in front of the town hall, in the company of several echidnas. Most Koalas in town were attached to lamp posts.

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The above is in the museum hall associated with the school.

A few of the many shop windows decorated with posters, and displays.

 

Albert

IMG_2803smAlbert is the closest major town to where we live and has shops and on Saturdays a market. It may seem strange but none of the small villages around here appear to have any shops, indeed most of these small towns appear strangely deserted. That is mystery for another time.

Albert was founded in Roman times (and its name from the 16th Century) and was the main British base for the Somme fighting. This is except for the times it was briefly occupied by the Germans in the very early (1914) and late (1918) stages of the war, (?plus also the first Battle of the Somme – 1916). It is famous for its Bascilica, which is topped by a gold-plated Madonna and child. The statue was hit by German shell fire in 1914 and became horizontal but never fell until hit by British shell fire in 1918.

The Somme 1916 Museum occupies 250 m of tunnels in what was originally the crypt beneath the basilica. Alcoves show scenes of trench life during the world war 1, including soldiers in trenches, undergoing surgery, eating rats in the snow, etc. Also they display original uniforms and equipment and quantities of weaponry and other war materials rescued after the war from the surroundings fields and old trenches.

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